Science is borne out of curiosity
The combination of curiosity and rigorous inquiry will lead to our next great invention.
When the news broke that I was sharing the Nobel Prize for the development of Chirped Pulse Amplification - or CPA - journalists and others asked me about its practical applications. It is understandable that they would want to know how it affects people or the planet, or where they might have seen it before. But in my mind, the fundamental science is at least as important. Certain innovations might not exist without first understanding the physics behind them.
Gérard Mourou, my doctoral supervisor at the University of Rochester and the laser physicist with whom I share half of the Nobel Prize in Physics 2018, was and is always coming up with ideas for projects. He dreamed up the beautiful idea of increasing laser intensity by orders of magnitude. It just came to him on the ski hill one day. It was my job to see if it was possible. I had to figure out how to do it. We had the opportunity to build a laser that opened up a whole new field of fundamental science called high-intensity laser physics. I made this work the basis of my PhD.
The term fundamental science may give some the false impression that it doesn't really affect their lives because it seems far removed from anything relatable to them. Sometimes it is the result of what appears to be a simple question: why something is a certain way, or whether something is possible. Fundamental science is borne out of curiosity. We were trying to study how high-intensity lasers interacted with matter. That is precisely why we developed CPA. I built a new laser so that we could study a fundamental question.
CPA changed our understanding of how atoms interacted with high-intensity light. That understanding led people to be able to machine transparent materials like the glass screen on your phone because the high-intensity laser does its damage only where it touches. Surgeons use CPA to slice the patient's cornea in laser eye surgery. It was fundamental, curiosity-driven research that helped make possible these applications familiar to us all.
With this knowledge, scientists are working on a way to use the most intense CPA lasers to accelerate charged particles. Someday, these accelerated particles will hopefully help surgeons remove brain tumours that are currently inoperable. And CPA lasers might one day push broken satellites and other space junk out of Earth's orbit to where they will burn up in the atmosphere.
Applications get a lot of attention, and deservedly so. They sometimes solve big problems or improve people's lives. They're relatable. But we need to remember that they are built on the shoulders of the basic science - the findings that result from someone with an open and curious mind probing the mysteries of the tiniest particles or the vast universe.
I am excited about the discoveries taking place at the University of Waterloo. We continue to be Canada's most innovative university in part because of the many brilliant ideas that members of our community turn into reality. The combination of curiosity and rigorous inquiry will lead to our next great invention, either directly or by furthering our knowledge of how the world works.
I'm thrilled that the development of CPA furthered our scientific knowledge and informs new innovations. I am eager to see what else fundamental research uncovers. I am a strong advocate of science for science's sake, and hope to encourage young scientists to keep asking these important questions. There's no limit to where they might lead.